Orphans – A Passion for Process, Part I

32626984_598218887241620_1841686774003269632_oÉtude #1
The actors begin in silence. They circle each other. They chase each other. They grab. They wrestle. They hide. They jump off furniture. Bounce off walls. Pull. Tug. Push. Words are never used. And then they rest, breathing hard, sweating. Still silent.

Actors Max Pavel and Dylan Marquis Meyers are rehearsing their upcoming production of Orphans using a rehearsal technique called “Active Analysis,” developed by Konstantin Stanislavski.

It’s not a well-known acting method in America, at least not yet. But if actor/teacher Cotter Smith has anything to say about it, that will change. Mr. Smith is coaching the Orphans team in Active Analysis; he talks the actors through the goals for each étude (the title Stanislavski gave to each phase of scene study) and prompts them to identify their discoveries from each iteration.

IMG_0193Mr. Smith, pictured left, is relatively new to Pittsburgh. He came to the city to film the Netflix original series, Mindhunter, and decided to move here permanently in 2017. Local theater credits include most recently barebones productions’ Rules of Seconds, which is just a small sampling of Mr. Smith’s long and distinguished theater, TV, and film career. Mr. Smith has also started taking on private students, as well as teaching at Nancy Mosser Casting, in order to promulgate the Active Analysis technique.

Of the technique, Smith explains, “Near the end of Stanislavski’s life, he began to reexamine his…requirement for obsessive text analysis by actors, and he felt that what he had done…was trap them in their heads and kept them at a table too long. And so he decided to…flip it and…to experiment with a completely radical approach, which is learning the text by stepping away from the text.”

Smith quotes Stanislavski, ‘“The place the actor has to start with is their body not their mind….Language should be the final physical action, not the first,”’ explaining, “So you play with the text…learn the story, before you speak it. Because if you speak it right off the bat, you don’t know what you are talking about.”

And so, in the first “étude,” the actors explore relationships, intentions, and emotions through physical interactions alone. It’s kinetic. It’s frenetic. And it looks exhausting.

Not so, says fellow cast member Ken Bolden (as Harold), who asserts this type of scene work is actually “invigorating,” and leaves your body “vibrating” in the end.

This is the first time most of the cast have been exposed to Active Analysis. And Max Pavel, after catching his breath, praises the method, “It’s been really fantastic for creating an emotional life before the text is even in our mouths. To establish relationships, and through non-realistic movement and staging and interaction…you can find things that would have been totally lost to you had you only done text analysis.”

All three cast members and stage director Ingrid Sonnichsen agree Active Analysis has actually sped up the process of learning the show and learning the lines. It’s an “emotional short-cut” that gets the actors to the crux of the production quicker than the more commonly used rehearsal techniques.

Étude #2                                                                                                                             Pavel (as Treat) and Meyers (as Phillip) return to the stage to improvise the same scene again. This time, they pick a few key words and key phrases from the script. These are the only words they may use throughout the scene, though they “can now use expressive sound within the body of the exercise” as well, coaches Cotter Smith.

The emphasis remains on the physical action of the scene, informed by the words. Once again, the men run, jump, chase, and struggle, only this time, they incorporate phrases: “Do you know the alphabet?” “Dispensation” “I was in the closet!” “I bet you’re holding out on me.” “Treat” “You know I couldn’t read it.” “You read this word?” “Maybe.” “No.” “Betcha holding out on me!” “I ain’t hold’n out on you, Treat.” “Come here, Phillip.”

Pavel and Meyers in rehearsal

Pavel and Meyers in rehearsal

They repeat the phrases again and again, sometimes casually, sometimes pleading, questioning, demanding, threatening, accusing, placating. On and on it goes until Smith calls an end to the exercise.

This time the scene feels more animalistic; there’s a stronger alpha vs. beta male vibe about the whole thing; the actors are more untamed, more “in the wild” with their playing of the scene. It’s riveting.

Smith expounds, “What Stanislavski is doing here is allowing them now to have a little bit of text, but not a lot…moving a little closer to the scene, but still not allowing them to feel like they have to remember lines or actually interpret the scene in any full way. It’s just continuing to explore a little more specific than before…and they have to keep moving. The point being that acting is an exchange of energy rather than thought. It is a kinetic energy.”

Orphans is a particularly kinetic play, entirely suited for use of the Active Analysis. Written in 1983 by Lyle Kessler, Orphans is the strange tale of two dysfunctional, destitute orphaned brothers, living together in isolation in a Philadelphia slum. The older brother, Treat, takes care of the younger brother, Phillip, through petty larceny and general thuggery, while Phillip remains shut into the house, unable to leave, dreaming among his dead mother’s coats. There is real anger and resentment between these brothers, trapped in a situation for which neither sees a solution. But there is also real love. The situation is disrupted by the introduction of a “businessman,” Harold, into the household. Harold starts out as a kidnap victim and quickly becomes a father-figure/boss/guru to the brothers. This new-found paternal “encouragement” is met with widely different reactions from Treat and Phillip, and could potentially destroy the relationship between the brothers, even as each character, including the all-powerful Harold, are desperately seeking, in their separate ways, love, stability, family.

There is a deeply masculine, youthfully belligerent energy permeating every line in Orphans, leading one to wonder what attracted director Ingrid Sonnichsen to the production. Sonnichsen explains “…a boy’s search for his father doesn’t resonate with me too much. It better be about people, and about love, and about accepting love and giving love, or else, I’m bored. And, with [a show like Orphans], having a female in the room….is not a bad thing, because no play that’s worth surviving is just about men or just about women.”

Sonnichsen goes on to enthuse, “The one other thing is, they (the actors) are all wonderful….That for me was the interesting thing, three actors who wanted to work together, who are willing to come in from California to do a play for free, essentially. When you have that amount of love and excitement about what you’re doing, the chances of it being really good are…really good!”

Part II of “Orphans – A Passion for Process” will be published later this week. Come back to find out more about the Active Anaylsis process and about the artistic team who have been working hard to make Orphans a reality.

Orphans opens May 31, 2018 at Aftershock Theatre in Lawrenceville. Tickets can be purchased at https://orphans.ticketleap.com/aftershock/

Photos courtesy of the Orphans team.


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